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Tierney Ashton dragged her exhausted butt up the steps to her apartment on the third floor of the old Macintosh mansion, dropped her duffle, jacket, and scarf on the floor of the foyer, and plopped down next to them. After unlacing her boots, she pulled them off and tossed them aside before yanking off her heavy socks and rubbing her aching and rather stinky feet. Too tired to even stand up and stumble to bed, she dropped back onto the living room carpet and using her duffle as a pillow and her jacket as a blanket, curled up on her side and fell promptly to sleep.
She awoke, blinking and sore, and focused bleary eyes on the smart watch on her wrist, which at the moment told her how many steps she’d gotten in in the last twenty-four hours—thirty-six thousand and change—but not the time. She tapped it.
Okay. But a.m. or p.m.?
With a groan, she pulled herself to her feet and padded into the living room to peer through the blinds. Kinda light outside. The window faced east and the sky gleamed with pink sunrise over the budding trees. Holy Toledo! She’d slept on floor for twelve hours straight. Yeesh.
Yawning, she went into the kitchen, rinsed out the coffee carafe, and started a fresh pot, adding a bit more French roast to the basket. She wanted a caffeine hit. If she didn’t need a shower so desperately, she’d walk down the hill to Mac’s. However, she reeked of smoke and sweat and charred wood. She chewed her lower lip as she watched dark brew drip into the glass pot, wondering what, if anything, she had to eat. The fridge was pretty much empty except for a dozen bottles of water, some cheese that looked a bit like she was making penicillin, two brown limes, and something she couldn’t identify in a foil-covered dish. She tossed the limes and the cheese and dropped the bowl in the sink to deal with later. The pantry yielded about the same—a box of cereal, some canned goods, and a loaf of bread that very closely resembled the science experiment she’d just tossed. Ugh.
Her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn’t had anything more than two power bars since before the call from across the river had come in at the station house. What a mess they’d faced. An abandoned factory on the Kentucky side of the river, which had been an eyesore and a haven for vagrants for years, had caught fire. The fire chief in Frankl Knob, Kentucky, where the fire had occurred, thought perhaps someone had made a campfire inside the old wood-and-brick structure. Even though spring had started out pretty wet this year, the four-story building had gone up quickly and burned hot and long. Being a paramedic and a firefighter in River’s Edge was always interesting, and Tierney had seen a lot in her ten years on the department. However, last night, helping other firefighters from all along the river drag the poor folks out of that burning factory had been the worst.
She closed her eyes against the memories of at least twenty people severely burned or suffering from smoke inhalation, including three volunteer firefighters. Shuddering, Tierney couldn’t block the vision of one woman, who had stumbled out with a small child clinging to her leg. She’d screamed at Tierney to help her save her other daughter, who had been wandering while her mother slept. The mother couldn’t find her in the smoky interior. Tierney had found her, unconscious in a stairwell. She’d carried the delicate girl outside and immediately started lifesaving procedures to no avail.
A lump formed in Tierney’s throat and her heart ached, remembering how tiny and frail the six-year-old had been, her face so peaceful in death in spite of her torn clothes and unkempt hair. The smoke had just been too much for her fragile lungs. Sometimes, Tierney saw things that simply tore her heart out.
She sipped her coffee, strong and black with sugar, and sat down at the table with her iPad, then rose again. The factory fire and nearly twelve hours of sleep left her too agitated to remain still. Carrying her coffee with her, she hauled her duffle into the large bathroom that doubled as a laundry room, emptied the bag into the washer, shucked out of her clothes and added them, too. Yanking a short terry robe from the hook by the shower, she shrugged into it and went back out into the living room to put away the rest of her gear and check her phone for messages.
Two from Mom making sure she was okay. Apparently, Dad, who was the fire chief and her boss as well as her father, had filled Mom in on last night’s disaster. A couple from her friend, Holly, reminding her… oh, crap, I almost forgot! She and Holly were meeting friends Sam and Megan, and Fran Peale, Holly’s employee and maid of honor, at the Tea Leaf at three before heading for a final fitting of their dresses at Karyn’s Bridal shop in Vevay. In just two weeks, Holly was marrying Aidan Flaherty, Sam and Megan’s brother-in-law. Three texts from Bren—he’d heard about the fire—wondering if she was okay. He was moving into his cabin; did she want to come up to the winery and help him celebrate. And, hey, it was almost midnight, where was she?
She smiled. Good old Brendan Flaherty. Her buddy had returned home from Washington, DC, nearly a year and a half ago. It was good to have him back in River’s Edge. He’d been her older brother, Mike’s, best friend since elementary school and had always treated her like his own little sister. He’d stepped right in as surrogate big brother when Mike died in Afghanistan fifteen years ago, and the two of them had helped each other through the grief. She treasured their friendship, especially now that Bren was home to stay.
Her eyes went to the photo on the mantle above the fireplace in the living room—Mike and Bren on their bikes with her sitting on Mike’s cross bar, his arm around her skinny form. The boys had been in seventh grade in the picture and at eight years old, Tierney had worshipped her older brother, although she’d always found his best buddy a little geeky. Actually, both Mike and Bren had been kind of nerdy—into computer games and science experiments and exploring the caves down by the Ohio River.
Bren was still geeky, but in the nicest way possible. He still made a point of looking after Tierney, even though at thirty-four, she was quite capable of taking care of herself. She went into the kitchen, refilled her coffee mug, and retrieved the box of marshmallow cereal from the pantry. Plopping back down at the table, she ate handfuls of dry cereal directly from the box while she texted Holly to let her know she’d be there at three, and Bren to reassure him that she was fine and would love to come out to the winery to celebrate his new digs.
Done at last! Brendan Flaherty stood in the center of the tiny space and gave a satisfied huff. It was only one room, but he’d managed to turn the old cabin on the ridge behind Four Irish Brothers Winery’s west vineyard into a cozy refuge. The perfect place to write his novel, which he’d barely touched since he’d arrived back in River’s Edge. Scanning the large single room, he nodded, appreciating how well he and Ben, the carpenter, had fit all his needs into less than seven hundred square feet.
The renovation had been more complicated than he’d expected, mostly because he’d been called back to Washington, DC, several times over the last year and a half and had to keep stopping mid-project. He was still on call for the State Department in DC, but he was officially classified as a remote worker on leave, so he was home to stay.
The cabin had fascinated him since boyhood, when he and his brothers and their friends would play in it. At least until the day the floor gave way and Da locked the door of the old place and told them to stay out. Because Bren was no pioneer and had no intention of roughing it, updates were mandatory.
The process had been arduous. However, the end result was totally worth the work and the price. He wanted a private, quiet place to write where he’d be close enough to help out whenever Conor, Sean, or Aidan needed him. The power company had run lines to the cabin for lights and heat, he’d had his own septic system put in, and run water lines from the winery. A small but functional kitchen took up one corner of the space and a bathroom addition that also held a stacking washer and dryer had been added behind the kitchen, while new windows, lighting, and soft white paint brought a feeling of airy spaciousness to the cabin.
The log house had been built sometime in the late eighteen hundreds, and according to the documents Conor had dug out, had originally served migrant workers who harvested tobacco on the old farm years before his parents, Donal and Maggie, had bought it and turned it into Four Irish Brothers Winery.
His cabin overlooked the Ohio River in front and the vineyard in the back. He’d repaired the small front porch and pulled a couple of rustic log-and-cane rockers from Sean and Meg’s garage attic so he could sit in the evenings with a glass of wine and watch the river. They’d offered him any of the old furniture, rugs, and lamps that his stepmom, Char, had stored up there when she married Da and moved to the winery years ago. Going “up attic,” as Da used to say, with Conor, Aidan, and Sean had been a treasure hunt, a trip back to their childhood.
He scanned the space, smiling at the gleaming brass bed in the corner, covered with a quilt that had been a cabin-warming gift from his pal, Riverside Diner owner Mac Mackenzie, and Mac’s lady love, Carly Hayes. He moved his gaze to the well-worn leather armchairs that sat in front of the stone fireplace and then to the maple drop-leaf table with four matching chairs that he remembered from the breakfast nook when he was a kid. His computer, parked on the table, called to him, but he still had stuff to unpack—bags of new towels and sheets he’d bought at Target, boxes of kitchen utensils, dishes, and pots and pans that he’d discovered in the attic, too. He’d sold his fully furnished condo in the Washington, DC, suburb of Germantown, Maryland, and left with just his clothes and personal items, so he was starting over.
“Bond, open up!” Aidan hollered and when Bren turned around, his brother grimaced from the other side of the screen door, a collection of grocery sacks in his arms. He passed a couple off to Brendan when he shoved open the door, which slapped shut behind him. “Okay, that slap-door is going to get annoying. You know that, right?”
Brendan set the bags on the counter and peered into them. “First of all, don’t call me Bond and second, I love the sound of a wooden screen door slapping shut, so not a problem for the guy who lives here, who, if you’re interested, actually prefers the nickname Hemingway.”
Aidan put his bags on the table and began rummaging through them. “Whatever, you weirdo. Hemingway shot himself, you know that, right?” He grinned at Bren’s shrug and began unloading bags. “The girls got happy. You won’t need groceries for at least a month. Here”—he pulled a tissue-wrapped shape from one of the bags—“Holly sent you this, along with a few tins of tea and a tea ball.”
Brendan yanked the tissue off to reveal a squat brown pottery teapot. “Wow. This is awesome! Tell her thanks.” He placed the pot on the shelf above the stove and started digging in the bags. Aidan wasn’t kidding. His sisters-in-law, Sam and Megan, and Aidan’s fiancé, Holly, had supplied him with all the necessary staples—flour, sugar, cereal, bread, as well as canned goods, perishables, and fresh produce.
Aidan held up a covered cardboard dish that Bren recognized as one of Mac’s new recyclable carryout containers from the Riverside Diner. “From Carly.”
Bren opened it and sniffed. “Truffle butter!” His stomach growled as Aidan also offered up a baguette wrapped in foil. “Does Mac know she snuck that out of the diner?”
Aidan tore off one end of the bread and swiped it across the top of the butter container. “I didn’t ask and she didn’t say. She just handed it to me when I paid my breakfast tab.”
Brendan held the container out of reach. “You Philistine. I’ve got plates and knives here somewhere.”
“Who needs ’em? You got paper towels?” Aidan emptied another bag, producing two chunks of cheese, a roll of summer sausage, and a bottle of Four Irish Brothers Winery pinot noir. “It’s time for lunch.” He set Bren’s computer on the coffee table and started unwrapping food.
With a shrug, Brendan grabbed a roll of paper towels, dug a paring knife out of a box of Sam’s old silverware he’d just opened, and dropped into one of the maple chairs. “I don’t know where my glasses are.”
“So we drink out of the bottle?” Aidan pulled a corkscrew from his pocket.
Bren grinned. His brother was all Flaherty, always with a corkscrew at the ready. He rose again and delved into one the boxes on the floor by the kitchen counter. “I think I know where some mugs might be… hang on.” He felt around. “Ah-ha. Here we go.” He gave the mugs a quick rinse. “Pour, brother.”
Slicing cheese and meat, they ate in companionable silence for a few minutes until Brendan heard the roar of Conor’s Gator coming up the gravel path. He rose and peered out the kitchen window as Conor, Sean, and Conor’s son, two-year-old Griffin, piled out of the well-used utility vehicle. The kid sped precariously down the rocky drive toward the vineyard, giggling when Sean grabbed him and tucked him under his arm like a football.
“We come bearing cabin-warming gifts.” Conor announced, then glared at the door as it slapped shut behind them. “That door is going to drive you crazy, Bond.”
Aidan chuckled and pointed at Conor before tossing an I-told-you-so look in Bren’s direction.
Brendan swallowed a bite of cheese. “I’m fine with the door.” He held out his arms. “Hand over the kid.” He nuzzled Griff’s dark hair as the toddler reached for a piece of cheese. “Can he have this?”
“Sure. There isn’t much he doesn’t eat now.” Conor turned a chair around, straddled the seat, nabbed a piece of sausage for himself, and rested his elbows on the back. “He’s into cheese right now. Last week it was oranges.”
Griff offered a toothy smile, so Bren gave him another tidbit of cheese.
Sean placed a cardboard case of wine next to the table and roamed the small cabin, examining the newly chinked and painted walls, the windows, and the huge fieldstone fireplace. “This place turned out great, didn’t it? Where did you find that fridge? It’s the perfect size for in here—not a mini and not a giant side-by-side either.” He opened the freezer. “You’ve even got an ice-maker. Awesome.”
“Nothing but the finest. Right, Griff, old man?” He ruffled the toddler’s dark hair. “Can you say Uncle Hemingway?”
Griff grinned and jabbered, although whatever it was that came out of his mouth sounded nothing at all like Hemingway.
Sean threw back his head and laughed. “Yeah, no. We’re not calling you Hemingway. That guy shot himself when he was like sixty-something. Not a good omen for your writing career, Bond.”
Oh, well, his brothers had already gotten used to Bond and got a giant kick out of creating more out of his career as a government analyst than actually existed, so no doubt, he’d be Bond for all of eternity. There were worse nicknames.
Sean joined them at the table. “I love this place. The perfect venue for a little hermit like you. You should get a bunch of writing done here.” He nibbled on some cheese, tore a piece off the baguette, slathered it with truffle butter, and took a bite. His eyes widened in astonishment. “How’d you get this out of the diner?”
Brendan chuckled. Nobody, but nobody, ever got a carryout of truffle butter from Mac Mackenzie’s Riverside Diner—it was sacred. The truffle butter was only served at the diner. “Aidan got it from Carly. It’s my housewarming gift, so don’t eat it all. I intend to savor it.” He plucked the container from the table, put the lid on it, and set it on the short counter behind him, grateful for long arms that allowed him to lean back in his chair and still hang on to Griff.
Sean scowled, then acquiesced. “I don’t blame you.” He licked his fingers and wandered over to the wall full of photos that Brendan had hung earlier that morning. “Wow! Is that you on the Great Wall of China?”
Bren nodded, his mouth full of bread and cheese.
“And where is this?” Sean pointed to a black-and-white photo of Brendan standing in front of a huge clock.
Brendan swallowed. “Prague. That’s the world’s oldest astronomical clock. Amazing, isn’t it?”
Sean’s brow furrowed as he scanned the display of more than a dozen photos from places all across the globe—some that were obvious—Moscow, London, Paris, Tokyo—and some that Bren was sure Sean wouldn’t recognize, like Zagreb, Croatia, and Podgorica in Montenegro. “Good God, Bond, all those times you said you were ‘on travel,’ we had no idea you were all over the damn globe. Conny, Ace, come check these out.”
Bren grinned. “You never asked where I was going.”
“We weren’t sure we were allowed to ask.” Aidan rose from the table to amble over to the photo wall. “Who knew? If you’d told us, you might have had to kill us.” He peered at a framed photo of Bren standing in front of an ornate palace, his arm around an attractive brunette. “Who’s this and where are you?”
Bren stood and carried Griff, who was still gnawing on a chunk of bread, over to his brothers. “Oh, that’s Agent 99, we’re in front of Bojnice Castle in Slovakia.” He said, working hard not to crack a smile. He couldn’t help being rather proud of his perfect Slovak pronunciation, particularly since it clearly impressed his gaping brothers. Because of the research and analysis work he did for several government agencies, he’d mastered, at last count, seven different languages, but that wasn’t something he boasted about. It was simply part of his job.
Sean stared at him over the top of his glasses while Conor looked askance and said, “Oh, sure, of course it is.”
“Agent 99?” Aidan chortled. “You’re kidding, right?”
Bren just smirked. They were so convinced he was a spy, it was fun to tease them. “Sorry, if I say anything more, I’ll have to kill you all, including the kid here, who absorbs everything he hears and might one day reveal a multitude of national secrets. Wouldn’t you, lil’ dude?” He held Griff in the air above his head, chuckling at the child’s delighted laugh.
His cabin was done, his brothers were here, his novel awaited, and his pal Tierney had texted she’d love to come celebrate his housewarming tonight.
God, it was good to finally, truly be home.
End of Excerpt